July 27, 2010

The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men

by Vadim Rizov

MAD MEN's Don Draper

In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He's up on his cinema, and that's no surprise. When someone asked if he'd seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, "I've seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it." Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly. He's much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show's up to 1964), just that. As Kieron Clark pointed out, "Advertising then did exactly as it does now: it co-opted, re-used and ripped-off cinematic culture, both high and low. As both Don Draper and Matthew Weiner know only too well, the Mad Men of Madison Avenue ignore the movies at their peril." Right now, Don's viewing choices may not have much to do with his work. Soon, they may have to if he wants to survive the '60s gracefully.

Marcello Mastroianni in LA NOTTEStyle-wise, the show's oft-muted colors make the '60s seem more modern than a meticulous recreation: its influences are ahead of the chronological period, even as the characters fight to keep pace with the '60s. As James Wolcott notes, Don's living in "Gordon Willis dark" rooms "without Godfather justification," a man out of time in a way that’s not fashionable yet. Maybe not quite The Godfather— although Draper brooding in the dark in the fourth season's premiere episode isn't far off either—but visually, Don's ahead of the times, meanwhile struggling to keep up with them.

People love to talk about Mad Men as "novelistic," in the same way that any long-form serial program could have that term thrown at it, but if Mad Men's a novel, it's a decidedly modernist one in its persistent elisions and fractured narratives. (The Dickensian aspect isn't really coming up much here.) What's omitted matters as much (sometimes more) as what's there. Refusing to use title cards to let you know what year it is, the jumps between each season form their own miniature form of suspense. Meanwhile, the production design keeps the show grounded in the familiar sleek lines and buildings of '60s cinema, albeit with the colors tamped down; the intertextual visual points could keep you up for nights, and have created a small cottage industry of online annotators.

MAD MEN's Don Draper As Wolcott points out, the possibility for aesthetic frames of reference is as small as the budget: there's no money for "location shooting in the canyons of Manhattan (which would necessitate period wardrobes for the extras, a fleet of vintage cars and buses and taxi cabs flowing by as if fresh-painted from the factory floors of a virile Ford and GM, all that pointillistic-detail verisimilitude)." So the actual number of visual references to draw upon is unsurprisingly small, more to do with furniture and functional spaces than colors or fashion: the usual suspects of The Apartment as the key guide to '60s office spaces, the hollowed-out upper-class and Bohemian haunts of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and so on.

Draper's affinity for La Notte comes from a different place; none of the Hollywood films of the time reflect his life the way that kind of disaffection does. (And if you're looking for an argument that the show's too heavy-handed, Don's affection for that most emphatic of Antonioni films, lovely as it is, is a good place to start.) It obviously has to do with the themes of marital dissolution, casual heavy drinking as expression of ennui and a vague, indefinable sense that the current order of things can't last much longer. Those would resonate with the perpetually brooding Draper, who—over the course of the series—will have a chance to have society as a whole catch up with his inner discontent, and hopefully keep up. But also: the characters onscreen are rich, bored and recognizably of Draper's age, fashion sense and build. Marcello Mastroianni was born in 1924, Draper—if you believe these guys anyway—in 1926. Mastroianni had a successful career, but as an icon he's most firmly associated with the period Draper's so far felt successful in. Watching his cinematic doppelgänger is like seeing European id get glamorized; Don has to keep it quiet and uncelebrated.

David Hemmings in BLOW-UP If the whole idea of Draper's show arc is that he'll evolve and change to survive the '60s (both personally and professionally), think about what Draper looks like, his cut and broad jaw inescapably tagging him as an increasingly outdated look for all men to aspire to. If and when Don makes it to 1966 and gets around to Blow-Up, he'll be watching David Hemmings—16 years and a whole generation younger—and a form of rebellion he can't actually follow. In the meantime, Mad Men doesn't really look like the '60s we think of onscreen, but it does, literally, look like the far-off future: maybe 1972, with an aging, once-powerful man commanding power in increasing darkness. That visual distance is the show's main way of reminding us it's not a time piece, but an interpretation done at a distance.

Posted by ahillis at 10:07 AM | Comments (3)

July 24, 2010

PODCAST: Todd Solondz

LIFE DURING WARTIME filmmaker Todd Solondz

Think of this as an addendum to our podcast recorded during last year's New York Film Festival, in which Armond White, Andrew Grant and myself (along with party crasher Sylvia Miles) debated Welcome to the Dollhouse and Palindromes auteur Todd Solondz's newly released Life During Wartime:

Part sequel, part variation on his acclaimed and controversial Happiness, the newest film from celebrated director Todd Solondz assembles an amazing ensemble cast including Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Paul Reubens, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling, and Ciáran Hinds in an utterly hilarious exploration of the boundaries of forgiveness, family, and love.

Ten years have passed since shocking revelations shattered the world of the Jordan family, and now sisters Joy (Henderson), Trish (Janney), and Helen (Sheedy), each embroiled in their own unique dilemmas, struggle to find their place in an unpredictable and volatile world. The past now haunts their family both literally and otherwise, and jeopardizes the future. Alternately hilarious and tragic, outrageous and poignant, Life During Wartime is an audacious comedy with unexpected resonance.

I met up recently with Solondz at the SoHo Grand Hotel Lounge to discuss his thoughts on forgiveness, The Wire, the political undertones of his new film, being accused of misanthropy, and whether (as I once heard him say in 2002) he still disliked filmmaking as the medium for telling his stories.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (16:44)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Talking Heads: "Life During Wartime (Alt. Version)"
OUTRO: Daniel Rey: "Welcome to the Dollhouse"

[Life During Wartime is now playing in limited release and on demand. For more information, please visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 6:00 PM

July 20, 2010

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and The Castro Commons: The filmgoing experience.

by Adam Hartzell

Castro-Theater.jpg

Many film festivals seek to start a conversation amongst cinephiles and the wider community in which the films are screened, and to do that they need space. And the lobbies of many film festival venues are often antithetical to discussion. They become cramped spaces of rugby-like scrums of people trying to queue for a seat, the bathroom, a snack, a friend they see in the distance, and, when the film ends, a convenient exit. Once outdoors, the scrum continues, pushed out into the cramped sidewalk where one has to join the strolling pedestrians often obstructed by those in queue for the next film. This year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival provided an opportunity to see how an addition of public space, The Castro Commons, could enhance or detract from the typical experience at the festival.

The Silent Film Festival takes place at the Castro Theatre partly because said theatre was built in the time of silent films and it is one of the few theaters in San Francisco able to project silent films properly. Equally important, the Castro Theatre has a foundation from which to build upon of regular theater-goers attuned to the importance of silent films. The Castro Theatre is half a block away from an awkward five-point intersection. And since the Castro is quite a scene at all times during the day and night, attracting tourists and locals to the queer-friendly bars, restaurants, and shops, this already awkward intersection is made more complicated by the heavy foot traffic.

The 'Castro Commons' became a solution to an urban design problem. (The designers of the plaza refer to it as the 'Castro Commons'. Although I too love this name for the alliteration and political allusions to the commons of yore that allowed citizens a public grazing range for their cattle, the name does not seem to have caught on amongst the public yet. Whenever I refer to the plaza, I have to explain that it's where 17th Street meets Market and Castro, and then people nod their heads that they get where I'm talking about. So as much as I love the name Castro Commons, in the vernacular of everyday language, I've found most people understand what I'm talking about when I say the '17th Street Plaza'. For this essay, I will continue my damnedest to encourage the use of Castro Commons, but I and the city may be forced to give up and call it the 17th Street Plaza eventually.) The plaza was the inaugural "Pavement to Parks" project, a city project inspired by similar efforts in New York that sought to temporarily reposition 'unused swathes' of city streets and 'quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks'.

I am a fan of the project, but let me disagree with a snippet of the city's own interpretation. In the case of Castro Commons, it wasn't 'unused'. (In the case of the other two plazas, Showplace Triangle and Guerrero Park, I would agree that they were extremely underutilized if not 'unused'.) The area that is Castro Commons was heavily used before, but not as a street as we've come to know them, but as a street from the past, where pedestrians ruled over the car. (See Peter D. Norton's wonderful history lesson, "Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City," if you ever want the background necessary to respond to the commonly mis-held belief that streets have always been for cars.) The Castro's pedestrians have reclaimed that intersection as a space for people for some time. By closing off 17th Street from car traffic for the block after 17th Street heads South from Castro Street, the Castro Commons finally made that official.

The projects are indeed inexpensive, put together from items lying around in city storage and donated by local companies with the design provided pro-bono by local landscaping, architecture, and design firms. The greatest expenditure is for labor. How 'temporary' these plazas are is up to the community feedback, since these plazas can be dismantled fairly quickly if the community finds these spaces more detrimental than beneficial. They can last for a long time if the community continues to benefit from them.

And the Castro community, those who live in the Castro and those who trek to it regularly, has fully utilized the Castro Commons, recently celebrating it's one-year anniversary and gradually making the temporary more permanent. Having over one-year under its belt, it's the perfect time to reflect on its impact on the festival experience, particularly for my favorite of San Francisco film festivals, the Silent Film Festival.

The Silent Films

The-Iron-Horse-John-Ford.jpg

My wife and I attended four films at this year's festival. The opening film, The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924) with Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer, had me hoping for a return to the dream of intercontinental rail infrastructure in the Peak Oil future rapidly coming upon us. However, I can't say the film itself will stay with me long after the festival.

Rotaie-Mario-Carmerini.jpg

But the other three films were standouts. The next day we caught the Italian melodrama Rotaie (Mario Carmerini, 1928) with Stephen Horne on piano and accordion and flute. This film was a recent 'discovery' by the Silent Film Festival staff, a lesser known work by a director whose reputation was tainted by his association with the Mussolini regime. Although the ending is disjointedly resolved, the anxiety during the gambling scenes was well-composed, as was the score by Horne, truly the musical highlight of the festival for me.

The-Flying-Ace.jpg

On Saturday we caught two films. First was the 'race film' The Flying Ace (1926) with Donald Sosin on piano. Directed by Richard Norman, a white man, the film portrays an all-black cast. The film was my favorite of the four, but more for the cultural and historical points than for any dramatic or artistic reasons. Those such as myself who are interested in portrayals of disability will find a compelling paradox in the character played by actor Steve Reynolds, who in real life has only one leg. Although he sings a song celebrating laziness, his character is anything but lazy and foolish, being quite skilled in chasing after the bad guys of this film. His ways of using his crutch, especially when riding a bicycle, are ingenious, and although this was surely played up for humor at the time, in retrospect, there's a respectful dignity presented towards his character too. As someone interested in the evolution of language and grammar, the intertitles display of 'to-day' and 'pay-roll' provide evidence of how the hyphenated words of the past might become the combined words of 'to-morrow'. Also, one of the 'bad guys' has a penchant for racist language that has gone out of fashion. But not racist language towards blacks, but towards white ethnic groups. His dialogue is peppered with rhetorical racism in which something is certainly true or else "I'm a Dutchman" or "I'm the Swede." Of course, whether or not this was common usage amongst African-Americans of the time, I'm not sure, because it was a white scriptwriter who put these words in the mouth of a black character.

Diary-of-a-Lost-Girl.jpg

Our final film was the German melodrama Diary of a Lost Girl (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929) with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. I always make sure I see one film at the Silent Film Festival accompanied by an orchestra, and Mont Alto did not disappoint, although Horne's composition was still my favorite. This film featured Louise Brooks, a fascinating personal story of the Silent Era. Although her image is now iconic of the era, during her time as an actress, she was never held as such. She has become more iconic thanks to the work historians and aficionados. The film itself appears to have acquired a campy creepiness in the performances of a Lurch-ing reformatory school employee and a lascivious pharmacist. Whether such a reception of the film is dissonant from the time, I will leave to historians, but it added to the pleasure of watching it in 2010.

Seeing four films allowed for four visits to the Castro Commons, each demonstrating what the plaza can add to the experience.

We Reserve The Right to Serve Everyone

Castro-Commons.jpg

The Castro Commons maintains at its center a platform for the embarking and disembarking of the F Market classic fleet of streetcars from around the world, from such world-renowned cities as Milan, Italy, Melbourne, Australia, and Cleveland, Ohio. (Humor me, I'm from there.) And when the weather's really nice, which is rare in SF, they sometimes bring out a convertible boat of a streetcar originally from Blackpool, England. Riding an F Market streetcar on route to the Castro Theatre allowed for the perfect play within a photoplay trip to the Silent Film Festival. When I got off work on Thursday and Friday to attend screenings of The Iron Horse and Rotaie respectively, this is the public transportation I took to disembark at the Castro Commons, stepping off the streetcar as if I were a patron of the Silent Era.

The Castro Commons is the perfect meet-up spot for a film festival because it requires no admission, doesn't cost a cup of coffee like a coffeehouse, and is more comfortable to wait in than at a street corner. The addition of the Castro Commons allows for a public place to meet, free of charge, before attending the festival. So this is where I waited for my wife. And we didn't appear to be the only ones using this space for meet-ups and waiting time. A couple (romantic or platonic, I'm not sure) sitting next to me in the plaza before The Iron Horse ended up sitting behind my wife and I in the balcony during the film. An older gentlemen sitting beside me in the plaza before Rotaie clarified for me that the time on the tickets was indeed printed incorrectly. The film was actually at 6pm, not 5:30pm as the tickets said. He told me this when he explained his son was now annoyed he had to kill an hour before the film.

Before the Saturday screening of The Flying Ace, I found my friend Brian Darr (proprietor of the San Francisco film blog Hell on Frisco Bay, where I often post my musings, and the person responsible for the essay and pre-screening slideshow of this year's screening of Dziga Vertov's classic Man with a Moving Camera) in front of the theatre with his friend. I quickly grabbed Brian and pulled him onward to the plaza where we talked about what we'd seen and planned to see until Brian was bogarted by yet another friend of his. But at least she had the decency to bring homemade cookies as a ransom for Brian.

One of the topics of our conversation was Dennis James' insistence of announcing the presence of Chinese railworkers - as David Kiehn noted in the program, some of whom were actually played by Paiute Indians - with a dadadada dutdut dum dum dummmmmm twiddling of the Wurlizter ivories. Those accusing me of political correctness may argue James was in-sync with the time period, but the existence of 'original scores' for films is much in debate by scholars. Local organ-players often improvised, so pursuit of a 'pure experience' is often a moot point. Plus, in some ways James' choice of melody represents, I argued, a laziness, a musical cliché, and I would hope that future compositions would be more creative rather than fall into Looney Tunes-ish musical stereotypes. This conversation was sustained until we saw the line of people waiting for The Flying Ace begin to peter out. Conversations are what the plaza allows for without feeling the need to move-on, as one may feel in the crowded lobby of a festival venue. I felt less constrained in the plaza than in a lobby, where complex feelings about a film need to be compressed into quick and witty soundbites in order to move along. To me, this is the prime benefit that the Castro Theatre now has a public space of leisure just around the corner from its crowded mezzanine and narrow sidewalks. The conversations can expand to fill the space, rather than be constrained to meet a quick exit.

Pavement to Project Runway

The Castro Commons was also a source for extra-diegetic sightings that followed us into the theatre. Like the disheveled-looking hipster pedaling the fixie in the Mission, the business blue-shirts in the bars of Union Street in the Marina, or the various niches of the Castro, from the beards of the bears and the tight-shirts of the gym-obsessed, the Silent Film Festival brings its own metropolitans in sartorial display. This means Flapper dresses and hats and shawls for the ladies, Jazz age suits and fedoras or tuxes and top hats for the men. Although not particular to the era of the silent film, I wore my bowler because quality hats are expensive and someone on a budget can only own so many. This year was the first year I could afford to buy one from the wonderful Paul's Hat Works in SF's Richmond District. Thankfully, one of the characters in Diary of a Lost Girl had a bowler, so I didn't feel like a total anachronism.

The plaza becomes a perfect runway for those of us who have decided to dress for the part of the former silent filmgoers. After the screening of Diary of a Lost Girl, Brian Darr, kicking the circa-correct fedora, my wife in a panda hat suitable for a Giants game, and I in my bowler had stepped away from the plaza to a local tea place called Samovar where we were able to alleviate our waitress' confusion by letting her know why she'd been seeing the hat brought back in the Castro this weekend. Such clarifies that the conversations of pre-film anticipation and post-film meditation are not unique to a public plaza, for we had something similar going in the private seats of this café. But, again, this conversation required a considerable admission price, which the plaza does not.

The Emperor Knows He Has No Clothes

Along with the sartorial on display in the Castro is the sans sartorial display, or unclothed. On nice days, clothing gradually comes off amongst some in the Castro. Usually it's just the buff with their shirts off, but the less-than Aonis-ly chiseled with only a g-string will walk through as well. And occasionally, those with the only covering being the sandals on their feet will saunter by. Two such bare (and shaven) fellows strutted through the plaza just before we ventured into our screening of Diary of a Lost Girl, where we were to find, thanks to Robert Byrne's slideshow background for the film, that these two naked gentlemen weren't the revolutionaries they might think. "Nude Culture" was part of the zeitgeist of 1920's Germany. Byrne coupled "Nude Culture" information with the historical background of the "New Woman" that Louise Brooks eventually epitomized in character and person to underscore the movement towards emancipation of societal constraints on the body, be it men or women, before Nazi Germany re-constrained the bodies of the politic. There is no way that Byrne could have planned the synchronicity that we experienced, but it's moments like these that highlight the unplanned that public spaces allow for.

Line-Drawing

winding-lines.jpg

One of the more problematic aspects of film festivals are the sidewalk obstructions caused by the queues. If no other businesses line the block, such as is the case with the festivals (SFIFF, SFIAAFF) held at the Sundance Kabuki in SF's Japantown, you don't have to worry about upsetting neighboring businesses. (The restaurant on the queue block of the Kabuki is also owned by Sundance.) In the case of the Castro, the businesses know the festival-goers bring in business, but it is still problematic the way the queue obstructs doorways and those simply trying to get through the sidewalk that is already narrow enough. I recall being in line for a past Silent Film Festival and heard an apartment dweller yelling at people for blocking his doorway. (He had a point, though he didn't have to be a prick about making his point.)

With the new Castro Commons, a partial solution to this problem was possible - the queue didn't have to wind around the corner and obstruct the sidewalk down 17th Street. Instead, it could wind into the public space of the plaza. But people have to figure this option out for themselves since no one is directing them to do it. I finally saw the plaza utilized this way for Castro Theatre queue right before Diary of a Lost Girl. And what a line it was. My wife and I, rather than stand in line, sit in the plaza and wait for the line to get going before we consider lining up. But Diary of a Lost Girl had a line that seemed to move on forever, assuring my wife and I would be viewing from the balcony again.

Ironically, even though Silent Film Festival patrons had appropriated the public plaza for the winding of their line out of consideration for the businesses and people along the sidewalk of 17th Street, a young gentleman became verbally aggressive with people in line as they were walking in. He began yelling at them for obstructing the sidewalk. His aggression was likely heightened by the fact that he was clearly on some kind of drug. As wrong as the guy was, unaware of the consideration those in the queue had engaged in earlier, no one wanted to confront him to explain how his tirade was inconsistent with the facts. Street crazies are one reason some people fear public space. Of course, the answer isn't to police-away the drug-addled man, but to make sure the public services are available so that he can get some help when he's finally hit that point, to intervene when things get out of hand. Thankfully, he was more annoying than dangerous and no physical altercation occurred.

What the drug-addled man, and the occasional pissed-off apartment dweller or business owner, needs to understand is that the people in line aren't the problem, the imposition of narrow sidewalks caused by the entitlement demands of private vehicle owners are the problem. Expanding out the sidewalks in front of establishments such as the Castro theatre would be the real answer. And San Francisco has an answer for that in the other aspect of the Pavement to Parks project called 'Parklets' (like this one), where temporary extensions fill-in the areas of the street that people falsely assume are the entitlement of private vehicles. Perhaps the festivals can look into implementing temporary Parklets outside the theatres during the festival run. San Francisco has a whole permit process for Parklets ready to be taken advantage of for such a public use. Because a plaza near the theatre can only help so much, more reclaiming of sidewalks and streets for the public will be needed to add to the pleasure of a film festival.

The Castro Commons is only the beginning of something we've needed in San Francisco for a long time. Although I can't say having a public space close to the Silent Film Festival added as much as the thrill of live accompaniment, with the implementation of a plaza, a typically wonderful experience at the Castro theatre has been made even better.


Adam Hartzell is a contributing writer to sf360.org, Koreanfilm.org, and Hell on Frisco Bay.
Posted by cphillips at 1:54 PM | Comments (2)

July 15, 2010

PODCAST: Nicolas Winding Refn

VALHALLA RISING filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn

The latest from Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, The Pusher Trilogy) is the austere and brutal 12th-century epic Valhalla Rising, what I elsewhere called "a trippy nightmare of savage poetry burning slow across bleak and otherworldly landscapes." These ain't your daddy's Vikings:

For years, the fearsome figure known only as One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen of Pusher, Flame & Citron and Casino Royale) has defeated everyone he's encountered, but he's treated more like an animal than a warrior. The only person he has any relationship with is the young boy who brings him food and water daily. Constantly caged and shackled, One Eye has drawn the attention of a new force now sweeping the countryside and displacing the society's leaders: Christians.

Before the film's premiere, Refn called from sunny California to discuss his "hallucinogenic drug" Valhalla Rising, how he made both this film and last year's Bronson simultaneously, and why Mads Mikkelsen never gets invited to his birthday parties.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (11:32)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Led Zeppelin: "Immigrant Song"
OUTRO: Aritomo: "Voice of Only One Eye"

[Valhalla Rising premieres July 16 in limited release and on demand. For more information, please visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 11:17 PM

July 12, 2010

PODCAST: Winnebago Man (Ben Steinbauer and Jack Rebney)

WINNEBAGO MAN director Ben Steinbauer, subject Jack Rebney

It might seem counterintuitive to craft a feature-length documentary around a viral clip concerning one man's explicit outtakes during a 1989 industrial video production, but Winnebago Man director, producer and cowriter Ben Steinbauer has truly made an entertaining portrait with a complicated range of emotions:

Jack Rebney is the most famous man you've never heard of—an RV salesman whose hilarious, foul-mouthed outbursts circulated underground on VHS tapes in the '90s before turning into a full-blown Internet phenomenon in 2005. Today, the "Winnebago Man" has been seen by more than 20 million people worldwide, and is regarded as one of the first and funniest viral videos. Filmmaker Ben Steinbauer goes in search of Rebney—and finds him living alone on a mountain top, unaware of his fame. WINNEBAGO MAN is a laugh-out-loud look at viral culture and an unexpectedly poignant tale of one man's response to unintended celebrity.

While in New York for the film's premiere, I sat down with Steinbauer at the Ace Hotel to discuss the film's themes, what can happen to analog recordings in the digital age, and who will play his subject in the inevitable Hollywood remake. As a bonus, the Winnebago Man team invited me to have a post-screening chat with the man himself, Jack Rebney. It seemed timely to discuss Mel Gibson's recorded outbursts before allowing him his soapbox to address all you %#$@ers directly.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (21:21)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Dead Kennedys: "Winnebago Warrior"
OUTRO: Band of Horses: "The General Specific"

[Winnebago Man is now playing in New York, and will open in nearly 30 cities throughout the summer. For more information, please visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 7:26 PM

July 9, 2010

The Boy With the Dragon Tattoo Crush

by Vadim Rizov

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salandar

I'm in love with Lisbeth Salander. I'm unrepentantly coming out with this information, despite at least three reasons this is a stupid way to feel:

1.) Lisbeth Salander is a fictional character from the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy—a series of books I haven't read (I struggled through 10 pages of an Amazon.com preview before giving up on them)—and two movies I've seen for work that I'd call absolute shit. Salander is a better character than either franchise deserves. Furthermore, I’m assuredly not in love with Noomi Rapace, who plays Lisbeth in the movies; she looks much cuter in character.

2.) As conceived, Salander isn't even "my type," nor is there anything really appealing about her personality. She’s a pretty good hacker, but aside from that suffers from Asperger's, is prone to (as Liz Phair said) "fuck and run," and doesn’t have a noticeable sense of humor. Her issues will keep a dedicated therapist in practice for decades, let alone any unlucky partner.

3.) Although some stone-cold shit is done to Salander, her violent retaliations would get an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the waifish sociopath from Audition. Just saying.

Noomi Rapace in THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE Despite all this, Lisbeth Salander is absolutely the most fascinating female protagonist I’ve encountered in a long time. She’s so good, it’s hard to conceive of her being dreamt up by the same mind that resorted to the hoary clichés of evil Nazis and ludicrously huge blonde guys built like Jaws from Moonraker. Salander reminds me of every unhappy girl from my middle school who inexplicably walked around wearing a spiked dog collar and combat boots, looking miserable about everything. The difference is that Salander definitely has her reasons: abused childhood, her autism, a generally lousy hand dealt in life. These are rote and knee-jerk explanations (why would a girl dress like this? Because she has been abused, of course!), and the spirit of the series is essentially a smugly socially conservative one—albeit one that shamelessly revels in all kinds of sadism and sexual violence, with the shrugging excuse of being "realistic" or "gritty." These are, still, explanations, and the movies actually attempt, in a clumsy way, to deal with an unprecedented new breed of hero.

Tank Girl may have paved the way for dog-collar-clad action heroines, but Salander is infinitely more popular. The books are subway-ubiquitous, and a friend who works at a law firm in Omaha says everyone there is reading them, which is about as widespread a demographic as the rights-holders could ask for. Lisbeth Salandar This presumably means that millions of Americans (and all of continental Europe in the bargain)—God-fearing airport thriller readers who normally celebrate righteous heroes—are now cheering on a weird-looking girl who would normally get strange looks in small towns where punk never broke.

Salander's sulky charisma may be unaccountable: she does nothing to earn it. She gets our sympathy as any abused person would, but she's one of the most baseline unlikable female protagonists in years. Yet, she's sullenly compelling like Jodie Foster often is, radiating a tightly self-contained core that explains more about her than all her clothing and accessories.

Let's face it: the movies (which are, to repeat, absolutely terrible) don’t give us more than that to work with. There's a lot of gratuitous nudity (if HBO had gotten the rights to this, they'd be going nuts), an exoticized fascination with Salandar's tattoos (which aren’t nearly as outlandish or colorful as anything I see on a daily New York City basis) and that’s about it. She’s a fetish object for the guiltily fascinated, and it’s no coincidence she ends up sleeping with a fit-but-hardly-dreamboat middle-aged man that represents one of the biggest demographics for the novels (and the most unlikely genre coupling since Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton in Code 46). She doesn't really develop or reward our patience, except for when it's discovered that she's a bad-ass pugilist.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salandar But there's something about the mere fact that such a hero exists—and is widely popular—that's heartening. It's like Morrissey hadn't wasted all those years pleading the outcast's case in vain. Lisbeth Salandar is a true outsider protagonist: she's not misunderstood, she doesn't reveal hidden depths and sensitivities after a while, and she never adjusts into a normalized look the way Rachael Leigh Cook would. She's a less charismatic Julia Stiles trying harder to look fierce, and she doesn't loosen up and get with Heath Ledger at the end—she's impenetrable. That's heartening, and so it's too bad that the movies and books are dreck. However, Lisbeth Salander will outlive all of it, and at least audiences are trying to meet her on her own terms, if secretly pruriently.

Posted by ahillis at 7:44 PM | Comments (2)

July 6, 2010

INTERVIEW: Lisa Cholodenko

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT director Lisa Cholodenko (photo credit: Danielle Taormina-Keenan)

Lisa Cholodenko's well-received 1998 debut High Art was a major landmark for lesbian filmmaking in the '90s, even if the writer-director makes films more to please herself than to fill any LGBT niches. After moving from New York to Los Angeles (where she shot 2002's titularly set ensemble drama Laurel Canyon—which, coincidentally, was centered around straight people), dealing with distribution troubles and working in television (directing episodes of The L Word and the short-lived Push, Nevada), the 46 year-old auteur returns to the big screen with her finest and most widely released effort yet, The Kids Are All Right.

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as a lesbian couple raising two teenagers. It's the final summer before their daughter (Mia Wasikowska) goes to college and her younger brother (Josh Hutcherson) wants to meet their sperm donor dad (Mark Ruffalo), creating more drama than anyone might've anticipated. (Life certainly imitates art: Cholodenko and her partner are raising a four year-old son, also helped by a sperm donor.) Working for the first time with co-writer Stuart Blumberg (The Girl Next Door), The Kids Are All Right is a superbly written, vivid character study with a genuinely erotic texture, a warmer and more humane summer movie amidst a slew of soulless blockbusters. While visiting San Francisco, Cholodenko sat down with me to discuss the film.

The Kids Are All Right Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a convincing onscreen couple in all their shorthand and chemistry. How much time did the actresses spend together?

Not much. They're great actors, and were passionate about doing the movie. The script had been developed over a long period of time, so there was a level of depth to the writing. I didn't have to explain so much, it was really on the page. Julianne had been involved [with the project] for several years. She said she wanted to do it and was waiting for us to get it together. Annette Bening came on later, partly because Julianne and I agreed she'd be a good person for it. We had maybe five days together [before shooting]. I spent two or three afternoons with them, just reading through.

How did you know Stuart Blumberg, and what was that partnership like?

I'd known Stuart in New York. He was an old, dear friend of a guy named Craig Wedren, the composer on my first two films. When he came to L.A. to do his own writing, we just happened to run into each other. I think I was just hoping to draw somebody in. Psychically, I had my antennae up. I had done my first two films by myself and was not up for the loneliness of doing another solo, but also I felt like I had things to learn, and wanted to grow and be challenged as a writer. I knew that would happen if I wrote with somebody else. I was about 20 pages into a first draft when I ran into him, and pitched the idea. He said he was a sperm donor in college, and I said, "That's the sign I need! How can I argue with that?"

There's a line in the movie about how meeting the donor father can be a disaster. Did you research stories along those lines?

Yeah. There's not that much literature on it, and obviously I haven't done a PhD's worth of research, but I was curious and needed to have my facts backed up a little bit. There are kids who say, "It was exciting and I'm so glad I got to meet him. I have half-siblings and that's great." Then there are other kids who are like, "This was really hard and I wanted to have a relationship with this person and it just didn't work." So you have to take it at face value. What else does that person bring to the picture? How was that person parented? What kind of family did the donor kid come from? There are so many pieces to the puzzle. In the grab bag of experiences, I'm sure there are lots of donor kids who are like, "This sucks. I wish I wasn't a donor kid."

The Kids Are All RightIt's interesting that you end the film with Mark Ruffalo's character.

We spent a lot of time thinking about that character and his arc and what to do with him. It was important to feel sympathetic to him and give him a throughline. He's a type. He's that Peter Pan guy who's just doing his thing. You peel away the layers and he's probably got some hang-ups about going to the next step with somebody, intimacy and being trapped. Now he's got gray in his beard, he's getting older and it's scary to be that guy. It takes this seminal experience to wake him up and realize that he's in that place. He bottoms out, but it's not signed, sealed and delivered.

Are you concerned about how the film will be received in the lesbian community, given that one of the characters experiments with straight sex?

I don't feel like this movie comes with a political agenda. It's an auteur film. Fortunately it has mainstream potential to it, but it's my vision and Stuart's vision. Sexuality is so fluid and ambiguous. I'm certainly a sympathetic person. I can understand politicized lesbians being put off that there's this transgression with a straight man, and having a whole dissertation on that. But I think any lesbian should be frickin' glad that I could figure out how to package these characters so that it could be delivered to the theater in their neighborhood and not get hung up on that stuff. Getting hung up is what keeps people stratified, closeted and segregated.

Also, it's not about "is she straight, or is she gay?" She sees this man, she's vulnerable, he's telling her that she's cool, he's attractive, and they've made a child together. That's pretty sexy and intoxicating. It's a soulful thing. It goes beyond sexuality.

The Kids Are All Right The question came up after the screening: Will anyone be offended by this?

Bring it on! People need to drop their stuff. How can you speak for everybody? I don't feel like I'm selling out. This resonates for me. If people really open themselves up, it's cool that we get to see these lesbian moms and their teenage kids on the big screen.

Ruffalo plays a restaurant owner, and I really like how food is integrated—it's a terrific foodie movie, and even Los Angeles feels special here. It's not a mall-scape. There's a real texture to it.

I have a lot of gripes about L.A. Trust me. But there are things about it that are sensual, singular and very cool. One of them is the kind of relationship that people can have with their personal outdoor space and just outdoor space in general—highways and sunsets and mountains and weird, craggy landscapes. It's all very evocative. There are really not that many actors in this, so I think it's important to have that openness and sense of place. It affects the characters in a subliminal way.

[The Kids Are All Right opens on July 9. For more information, visit the official site. Top photo (Cholodenko) courtesy of Danielle Taormina-Keenan.]

Posted by ahillis at 1:14 PM

July 1, 2010

FILM OF THE WEEK: Willie Nelson's 4th of July Celebration

Leon Russell and Willie Nelson and a 4th of July Celebration

Willie Nelson's 4th of July Celebration
Directed by Yabo Yablonski
1979, 100 minutes, USA
(screening July 3, 4 at Anthology Film Archives)

To a central Texan, celebrating Independence Day means more than fireworks, BBQ, baseball games and parades, as this weekend marks the 37th year of aging outlaw-country legend Willie Nelson's "4th of July Picnic," a laid back and Southern-fried Lollapalooza that this former Austin-based writer once attended in the late '90s.

Over three days in 1974, a reported 25,000 turned out in College Station for the second annual extravaganza, a dirty, shadelessly sun-assaulted, Lone Star beer-soaked (and sponsored!), marijuana-smoky affair that was filmed but rarely screened. Woodstock may be the countercultural touchstone of the era, but the mysterious Yabo Yablonski's chilled-out concert movie is the more mesmeric drug, better encapsulating an entire subculture of regional hippiedom and music. (To think, Willie and company's tunes would be labeled "alt-country" if newly released today.)

Far younger than the avuncular old stoner in braids he's become beloved for, the Red Headed Stranger kicks off his onscreen set with a rousing "Whisky River," but later sets the tone with the crowd: "Is everybody loaded? Great, cuz we are, too!" Feelin' groovy behind a pair of sunglasses, he floats around backstage when not performing, overseeing his friends' sets: There's a stoic Waylon Jennings, dedicating "Good-Hearted Woman" to Willie's then mother-in-law Helen Vela. Jerry Jeff Walker fronts the Lost Gonzo Band for "London Homesick Blues," which finely tuned ears will recognize as the long-time theme of PBS's Austin City Limits. Doug Kershaw, decked out like a dandy red-velvet Leprechaun, fiddles and hotfoots through "Diddy Diddy Lo," not only stealing the show but inspiring one free-lovin' lady to disrobe entirely and climb onstage after him. Yablonski throws her awkward bear hug into slo-mo, one of a handful of random stylizations (lens flares, fades to white) made endearing by their outmoded, kitschy place in far-out history.

In the crowd, more naked flesh gets exposed. Sweaty beer guts abound, and get a load of the hirstute bear in suspenders with a tallboy in one hand and a liter of booze in the other. Bare breasted women jiggle to the beat while sitting on men's shoulders—yes, a norm in such venues—but in one particularly creepy-funny moment, a topless girl shrugs off the fact that she can't keep nearby horndogs from copping feels from behind her back. Perhaps this is what happens when everybody is wasted out in the heat, and far more than Woodstock, the film offers a palpably relaxed feeling that's something like a cinematic contact high.

Or maybe that's just the hilarious, vicarious power of graying emcee Leon Russell (photo, left), whose heavy-lidded, open-shirted, suds-annointing, irksome-whispering, backup-warbling, story-rambling and microphone-hogging persona is omnipresent throughout the whole performance. Even as day turns to evening and the cameras begin to train more on the performers than the crowd (thankfully), Russell appears to be having more fun than anyone else at the Texas World Speedway. Hell, I wouldn't mind falling asleep to whatever he's on. Goodnight, Irene, I'll see you in my dreams.

[photo credit: Yabo Yablonski]

Posted by ahillis at 6:42 AM | Comments (3)